"Getting and Spending" comes to Broadway on the back of a successful run in San Diego.
But as any baseball fan can tell you, there is a big gap between wowing San Diego and conquering New York.
Much of Michael Chepiga's play is set in a Catholic monastery, yet it doesn't have a prayer. In some respects, this is a pity. Broadway needs new writers tackling big themes such as the individual's duty in the face of poverty.
Somewhere in Chepiga's play, there is a core of real social concern. But it's so deeply buried in a deathly plot that no amount of frantic digging can exhume it.
The central idea is a modern variation on "Robin Hood." Victoria, a smart and steely Wall Street broker, steals from the rich by making $180 million from illegal insider trading. She gives to the poor by using this money to build decent housing in Harlem, until she is caught and put on trial.
There might well be an interesting play in following her course from ambitious high-flyer to passionate criminal and in teasing out the moral questions that such a journey raises. That play, sadly, is not "Getting and Spending." Bizarrely, Chepiga chooses to focus instead on a tedious and at times ludicrous plot concerning Victoria's attempts to persuade a hotshot trial lawyer to take her case.
The lawyer and I am not making this up has retired to a Franciscan monastery and is about to take his vows. Almost the entire first act is taken up with the laborious mechanics of getting him out.
Given what follows, though, it's easy to understand his reluctance to come out of hiding. The mixture of religious schmaltz and courtroom procedural is too painful to describe. Try imagining rejected bits of the old "Perry Mason" TV shows spliced into the convent scenes in "The Sound of Music."
The author spends so much time plodding through the swamps of his increasingly silly story that he never gets around even to the basics of drama convincing characters, rich dialogue, action that allows the actors to use the stage as more than a platform for speeches.
For the actors, principally Linda Purl as Victoria and David Rasche as the lawyer, the task is hopeless. At times, under John Tillinger's brisk direction, they try to make the play a comedy but find themselves constantly dragged back by the earnestness of the dialogue. The wonder is that Purl at least manages to come through with some dignity.
The tone swings so wildly from the silly to the would-be serious that all Tillinger can do is to keep things moving and spare us as much tedium as he can. He is helped in this by a clever James Noone set that uses strips of lighting to evoke various locations.
But you know you're in trouble when the set is more animated and complex than the characters. A whole monastery of Franciscans on their knees, night and day, couldn't save this one.
There are, from time to time, warnings posted in theater lobbies, advising that strobe lights will be used or that gunshots will be heard. But shouldn't this trend be expanded? Shouldn't there, for instance, be a sign in the Helen Hayes Theater that announces, ''Warning: Cute monks will be featured in this production''?
The Helen Hayes is where Michael J. Chepiga's ''Getting and Spending,'' a play about moral redemption in the age of corporate greed, opened last night. Its cast of characters does indeed feature two monks, whose vows of poverty and celibacy make them all the more adorable and chuckle-worthy when they speak in worldly ways.
Meet Brother Alfred, who, upon making the sign of the cross after his first entrance, announces anxiously, ''The market closed down 47.'' Then there's Brother Thaddeus, who, though old and easily shocked, can't help observing, when a shapely woman starts to undress in the sacred halls of his monastery, ''What a babe.'' Thaddeus, by the way, is also partly deaf, which allows for topically pointed jokes inspired by his mishearing: ''law degree'' becomes, in his rendering, ''lot of greed.''
In fairness to Mr. Chepiga, a corporate lawyer making his Broadway debut as a playwright, ''Getting and Spending'' is not trying to be the male equivalent of ''Nunsense.'' (What would such a work be called? ''Monk Shines''?) Alfred and Thaddeus are only a sideshow in this story of a high-powered, manly lawyer who retreats into their monastery and the high-powered, womanly investment broker who lures him out of it.
The presence of the good brothers, however, provides an accurate barometer for the overall tone of this play, which has been directed by John Tillinger and stars Linda Purl and David Rasche. ''Getting and Spending'' considers subjects to which philosophers have devoted whole lifetimes: the elusive nature of faith, the life of contemplation versus that of action, the difficulties of being good in a corrupt universe. But it does so with the by-the-book facility of a grade-B sitcom. The show aims high thematically, but every joke and sentiment seems to have come from a can.
You can see why producers might have been intrigued by the idea of ''Getting and Spending.'' Since the announcement of the death of the selfish consumerism of the 1980's has turned out to be premature, why not another play on the ethical toll of raiding and trading? The intention seems to have been to create a contemporary variation on ''Other People's Money,'' Jerry Sterner's 1989 hit about a wicked Wall Street liquidator, but with a spiritual spin more appropriate to a time in which even Madonna has found religion.
The production signals its ambitions in its opening seconds, when the grid of LCD's that transects James Noone's set stops projecting stock market figures to spell out the lines of the Wordsworth poem that give the play its name (''The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending . . .''). We soon learn that at least one man, Richard O'Neill (Mr. Rasche), has taken Wordsworth's admonition to heart.
Once called ''the rightful heir to Clarence Darrow,'' this celebrated defense lawyer has found only emptiness in success and is now on the verge of taking his monastic vows. The strong-willed Victoria Phillips (Ms. Purl), who might be called the rightful heir to Michael Milken but isn't, is determined to bring Richard back to New York long enough to defend her against charges of insider trading, something of which she is indeed guilty, though not for the usual reasons.
Most of the first act is devoted to whether Victoria will persuade Richard to represent her; and since it's a foregone conclusion that she will, there's not much for the play to do except let them trade insults while they fall in love. (Her to him: ''Let me tell you something, you macho monk.'' Him to her: ''Please spare me your finishing-school sociology.'')
The second act is centered on the trial, which is replete with a curmudgeonly judge with twinkling eyes (MacIntyre Dixon) and a ruthless young prosecutor (Deirdre Lovejoy), whose prototypes can be found at any hour in the ether of reruns on cable television. Also on hand are Victoria's frustrated suitor (Jack Gilpin) and her mother (Debra Mooney), a reluctant witness for the prosecution. Tagging along as Richard's assistant is the ever-lovable Brother Alfred (Derek Smith), who confides to Victoria: ''Can you keep a secret? I'm having the time of my life.''
This scenario isn't unlike plots that fueled a host of vintage screwball film comedies, with stars like James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert. But in ''Getting and Spending,'' the formula seems to be the end product of years of recycling through other, lesser movies and television shows. There ain't nothing left but the bones.
Despite Mr. Chepiga's evident success in his day job, he is unable to generate any suspense out of Richard's unorthodox legal stratagems. Under Mr. Tillinger's direction, the actors seem to have set their performances on that perky automatic pilot common to stars of long-running comedy series. Within these limitations, Ms. Purl comes off best, especially in the first act, where she carefully limns the contradictions of a corporate go-getter with a social conscience.
Not that it's any consolation, but these actors aren't the first casualties of a dispiriting month on Broadway that has already given us Rob Bartlett's ''More to Love,'' which turned out to have the life span of a mayfly, and the limp, rudderless musical ''Footloose.'' The new season's hipness quotient, at the moment, is somewhere below that of Kenneth W. Starr.
The objections fly fast and furiously in the courtroom scene of Michael J. Chepiga's "Getting and Spending," but they couldn't hope to outnumber one's own to this dreary play itself. The plot is a jerry-built jumble of stock situations and lame contrivances. The execution is painfully labored, to boot --- every character gets a big, meaty monologue, each duller than the last. And it's badly acted, into the bargain, and directed at a leaden pace by John Tillinger. Look for a quick plea bargain by producers and a fast exit from its Broadway berth at the Helen Hayes.
Chepiga is himself a lawyer, as recent features have endlessly reminded us, and the male protagonist here, Richard O'Neill (David Rasche), is a noble, celebrated and soul-sick attorney who's fled the cruel, corrupt world: "Injustice made me angry," he says nobly, by way of explaining the refuge he's taken at a monastery in Kentucky, of all places.
There he's tracked down by Victoria Phillips (Linda Purl), a superachieving investment banker indicted on insider trading charges to the tune of $ 18 million. She hopes to get O'Neill to defend her. After some tiresome comic interplay with a few monks, Victoria finally gets O'Neill's attention by threatening to run topless through the monastery, one of the play's more ridiculous moments. (Would the brothers really care?)
As a lawyer, Chepiga may be aces, but as a playwright he's hopelessly inept. Ten seconds after Victoria and Richard start bickering at first sight, it's clear to anyone who's seen a romantic comedy in the past 50 years that O'Neill will take the case, but it takes the playwright a full 45 minutes to get that far.
And Chepiga's dialogue is considerably inferior to what can be heard weekly on your average network lawyer drama. "You're a fascinating woman," O'Neill smoothly says to his client, signaling the second-act arrival of the clinch that , again, we've been expecting since this coy couple locked horns at first meeting.
It turns out that Victoria, too, is a saintly soul, who made all that money so she could build housing for homeless people. Her big moment is an abominably trite human-interest essay disguised as a monologue in which she treats us to the news that there are a lot of poor people around, and it's not fair, and it's just breaking her big heart.
There's probably little to be done with these implausible creations, but director Tillinger seems to have been asleep at the wheel. Rasche's performance as O'Neill is soap-opera stiff, while Purl's is too shrill and rife with annoying mannerisms. Only Debra Mooney, as Victoria's mother, makes a pleasant impression. Veteran scene-stealer Derek Smith plays a wisecracking, pratfalling monk, and duly steals as many scenes as he can, but in the case of "Getting and Spending," that's very petty larceny indeed.